Monday, August 14, 2006

Grassroots Founders, on voting: Alexander Hamilton

Grassroots? Alexander Hamilton? OK, let’s face it: overall, Hamilton was not a grass roots kind of guy. It is even an open question whether he really believed that representative democracy was a better form of government than the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain. I think Hamilton’s attitude was “Well, I’m not sure this republic thing is the best approach, but if you are going to do it, here’s how." Perhaps that is why his views on representative democracy do not seem so inspiring to us today. We prefer the noble inspiration of Jefferson or the deep, if sometimes obscure, ponderings of Madison.

I think the key to understanding Hamilton is that he had a deep respect for the right of the people to rule, and a deep respect for the power of popular opinion, but a very deep fear that the popular will could not be channeled constructively without very careful and stable guidance. And this should be guidance by an elite, who would be accountable to the people, but also had a definite self-interest in the prosperity generated by a responsible government. This governance by a stable elite whose interests would be channeled towards the public good by careful institutional design, and also accountable to the people is the source of Hamilton’s notorious concept of good corruption. He believed that a good government that respected human rights had to derive ultimate authority from the people: very ultimate, but also in some ways very remote.

So, looking at the plan Hamilton presented to the constitutional convention, you see this curious mix. On the one hand, he recommended a very stable elite: life tenure for the president and members of the Senate, de-emphasis on the states, explicit rejection of any kind of state sovereignty, and concentration of talent and power at national level. One the other hand, he recommended more branches of the government be elective than most others: indirect popular election for president and members of the Senate, and direct election of members of the House at the relatively frequent interval of three years.

I think that Hamilton felt that it was the duty of the government to ensure that this ultimate authority had to be a genuine expression of the mass of public opinion. He feared social and constitutional instability unless the people really were given the opportunity, indeed, encouraged to express their opinion honestly and completely in elections. After that, well, they had better mind the people they elected to be the elite. But in any case, he wanted very free elections with very broad participation. Here he is speaking at the New York ratifying convention:

" …We must submit to this idea, that the true principle of a republic is, that the people should choose whom they please to govern them. Representation is imperfect; in the proportion as the current of popular favor is checked. The great source of free government, popular election, should be perfectly pure, and the most unbounded liberty allowed. "
Alexander Hamilton, Speech in the New York Ratifying Convention, on Representation, 1788

How perfectly pure? How much unbounded liberty? We will see in the next post in this series that he would probably approve of a proposal that would be considered very grassroots and progressive today in terms of ensuring a large voter turnout (hint: Australia).

previous post in this series